“Don’t be so sensitive.” You have likely heard those words before, or you may even have said them. Although that phrase in daily conversation is likely to invoke eye-rolls of mild irritation or downright frustrated reactions from the hearer, when that phrase is applied to teeth, the reaction is likely quite different.
Let’s face it, no one wants to suffer from painful, sensitive teeth. So, if you have been dealing with sensitive teeth and want to take steps to treat your conditions, it’s important to look at the whole picture—the specific cause of your dentin hypersensitivity and what treatments actually work.
What is Dentin Hypersensitivity?
Dentin hypersensitivity (commonly called sensitive teeth) is a remarkably common problem. Estimates for how common a problem it is vary widely, but up to 74% of people visiting the dentist may suffer from dentin hypersensitivity. So, it’s important to understand exactly what dentin hypersensitivity means and how it develops.
Your teeth have a hard, outer layer called enamel. Enamel covers the softer, middle layer (called dentin), which, in turn, surrounds the tooth’s inner layer, the pulp. The dentin layer is made up of little cylinder-like shapes called tubules which extend down to the pulp layer. Dentin hypersensitivity occurs when the enamel doesn’t completely cover and protect the dentin tubules. This lets irritants into the sensitive surfaces of the tooth, resulting in discomfort or pain in the presence of an irritant, like hot, cold, acidic, spicy, or sugary foods or drinks. The pain is usually described as sharp or like an electric shock, and it’s generally short in duration, disappearing soon after the painful stimulus is removed. It’s a different kind of pain than that caused by an irritation of the pulp, which is more likely to present as a long-lasting, dull ache. It also should not be confused with pain caused by a cavity (dental caries).
How to Stop Dentin Hypersensitivity Pain
Although there are multiple treatments on the market for dentin hypersensitivity, treatments tend to focus on one of two main approaches. The first type of treatments revolve around dentin hypersensitivity nerve desensitization. The second type of treatment focuses on blocking (occluding) the dentin tubules to stop irritants from reaching the nerves.
Dentin Hypersensitivity Treatment at Home
Most of the time, people with dentin hypersensitivity try to treat sensitivity at home as a first step. Your dental care team can even make recommendations on which treatments may be appropriate for your specific situation. At home choices and recommendations include:
1. Treat Dentin Hypersensitivity With Proper Hygiene
Unfortunately, sometimes day-to-day actions can contribute to dentin hypersensitivity. Rough brushing technique—brushing too hard or with toothbrushes with bristles that are too stiff—can cause your gums to pull away from your teeth at the gumline, revealing the sensitive dentin that was previously covered by your gums. Not removing all the plaque from the gumline can also cause the gums to recede, exposing dentin and causing dental caries—both of which will cause dental pain. The first step to correcting any such pain is removing the cause, and that means improving brushing technique and using a soft bristle brush to clean teeth more effectively.
2. Management of Dentin Hypersensitivity With At-Home Products
There are numerous products on the market advertised specifically toward people with sensitive teeth. Some products contain potassium nitrate in one form or another. These potassium salts work by reducing nerve sensitivity and irritation. Nerve desensitizing agents are available in toothpaste, rinses, and gum.
Treating dentin hypersensitivity with fluoride can help close off the tubules and improve dentin sensitivity. A fluoride gel can be used as an at-home treatment for sensitivity, particularly when it is applied in trays. There are multiple fluoride products on the market, so it’s a good idea to check with your dental care team to discuss which option is best for your specific oral health. A fluoride treatment that includes calcium increases remineralization and may be more effective for treating sensitivity.
When to See Your Dental Care Team for Dentin Hypersensitivity Treatment
If at-home treatments aren’t providing enough relief, there are additional options available in your dentist’s office. Your dentist may recommend starting with a fluoride varnish, a longer-term solution for sensitivity than at-home treatment. Some dentists may also offer laser treatment, which can provide nerve desensitization and occlude dentin tubules.
Consider Long-Term Hypersensitivity Treatments
If topical treatments don’t seem to do the job, your dentist may offer long-term treatment options. Dental iontophoresis—a procedure where electricity is used to put ions and medicine into the dentin tissue to close the tubules—can be very helpful in treating sensitivity. Bonding, where a dental resin is applied to the exposed surfaces near the root to cover the sensitive area, may also provide relief. Sometimes, a gum graft to cover the exposed dental tissue may even be recommended.
Whatever treatment method you decide to try, you can rest assured that suffering from dentin hypersensitivity is not required. You have options. Your dental care team can help you make the best choices for your particular situation.